Fall Colors: Griffis Sculpture Park

photo from NY Travel Guide

It’s been a little while since my last post.  I have a few things in the works, including a profile of the mysterious and often underappreciated Forest Lawn Cemetery.  In the meantime, I wanted to take some time to highlight some places that are fantastic to visit during the autumn months.  Yes, I know it’s depressing to hear that summer is coming to an end, but it’s time to accept it.  Disbursed between normal “exploration” posts will be posts about places I have been that are practically necessities to chalk up on your fall schedule.  Fall is hands down my favorite season, and unfortunately it doesn’t seem to last very long in Western New York.  By the time the leaves get a chance to turn full color, they’re already being covered by the first dustings of snow.  It’s also the last chance we have to comfortably do things outside before bundling up like Randy in “A Christmas Story”.

With this in mind, the first installment in this series will be one of my absolute favorite places in the entire region – Griffis Sculpture Park.  Located just south of Springville, Sculpture Park is perhaps the most underappreciated gem that our area has to offer.  I have been going there since my parents first discovered it when I was very young, but I am always shocked to speak to someone that has either never heard of it, or is aware of it but has no idea of the gigantic scope of it all.  Flip over to the other side to learn more:

To some of you in the Northtowns, Springville may seem like an entirely different country.  The truth is, getting there is quite simple, as it’s just an easy drive down the 219.  There’s really only two turns to get to the park itself, and some signs on the road make it even easier to find.  First, some history.  Artist Larry Griffis was intrigued by the way that art was used in conjunction with parks in Europe, specifically in Italy.  A sculptor himself, Griffis returned to America hungry to fulfill his vision of bringing such a place to Western New York.  Early ideas for sites to use included Kissing Bridge Ski Resort, as well as Artpark.  However, Griffis’ vision required a more “natural” and undisturbed terrain.  He eventually settled on 425 acres tucked in the hills and forests of the Southern Tier in 1966, where the park now sits.  Honestly, I can’t imagine if the park had been put in a more populated area like Kissing Bridge or Artpark.  There is something special about traveling out to the middle of nowhere to roam the grounds.

The park is divided into two sections that are within driving distance of each other, the first being the 100 acre original site, a large meadow atop one of the Southern Tier’s rolling hills.  As you drive on a worn down old road slowly climbing the hill, keeping an eye out for where the park entrance is, you suddenly feel like you’ve been transported into some mythical land.  25 foot steel people walk through the fields on both sides of the road, while steel birds fly next to them.  A 20 foot giraffe retreats into the forest, as though he was startled to hear your car come down the road.  The first thing you’ll say to yourself is, “What IS this place?”.  Then you realize you’re done looking for the park, you’re in it already.  It’s here you can park in a dirt lot and head into the meadow to check out the sculptures up close and personal.  Some have round, hollow spots in them you can climb up into.  Some you just find yourself staring at, marveling at the intricate work that Mr. Griffis and his family put into each and every piece of art.  What’s that sticking out of the woods over there?  You mean there’s sculptures IN the woods too?  Yes, follow that giant spider and you’ll find a trail adorned with all sorts of animals, from mosquitoes to triceratops.  This area simply shines in the fall – with the colors covering the hills seemingly mesmerizing you.

As if this section of the park wasn’t enough, the real display awaits a short drive around the corner.  Once you’re done exploring this area, follow the signs to the main section of the park.  After you park your car, be sure to drop your fee in the honor system admission box.  Sure, it’s easy to just walk by, and many of you probably will, but reconsider before you do.  This isn’t a public park maintained by your tax dollars.  It’s an individual’s vision, which he has opened up for everyone to share.  The members of the Griffis family (Larry passed years back, and his son Simon tragically died at Zoar Valley last year), as well as the Ashford Hollow Foundation, do an incredible job of maintaining the grounds, and every dollar helps the cause.

photo from Artvoice

This main section of the park is basically a network of trails up and down a large, rolling hill, through the woods, and eventually back to the parking lot.  The higher up the hill you go, the more you are rewarded for your journey.  Part way up sits a pond with The Bathers –  sculptures of swimmers within the pond as well as many around the edge forever ready to dive in, as though they were frozen in time.  Further up you will come across three-story steel castles, which may appear to be fashioned for children but that you’ll find irresistible to climb up into.  It’s in this open area on top of the castle that you’ll first turn around and see you’re in the middle of the rolling hills of the Southern Tier.  During fall the hills are covered in color.  Once you get to the top of the hill, it may seem as though you’ve reached the end with the forest wall in your way.  However, head down the trail to see one of my favorite parts of the whole park.  It’s here in the woods you will find busts of the entire Griffis family, fashioned out of metal, as well as various other heads.  This circle in the woods sends chills down your spine as the heads of the family stare back at you.  Deep in the forest here it feels as though you’ve stumbled upon some sort of medieval memorial site.  Very cool.

photo from Buffalo Spree

The way back down the hill isn’t as exciting, but a maze awaits you, as well as some other great works.  You’ll also come across a large amphitheater-style stage, which seems a bit out of place but I always found intriguing as a kid.  How awesome would it be to see one of your favorite bands here?  Well I overhead someone in the park mention years ago that Jamestown’s own 10,000 Maniacs (featuring Natalie Merchant) played a show there once.  Thanks to Google, I found out the concert was in 1991 and was attended by over 5,000 people to raise money for the park.  Part of me would love to see some sort of concert series at Sculpture Park, but the other part of me wants it to remain a fairly well kept secret of the WNY area.

Sculpture Park is fantastic to visit during any time of year, but the fall colors provide an incredible canvas backdrop to the works of art that cover these hills.  It has become a “must see” destination for my family when we have guests from out of town, and I usually make a pilgrimage back there at least once every fall to enjoy the scenery.  If possible, I’d recommend going on a weekday, as the lack of people in the park only makes the experience more surreal.  Do you have any memories of Sculpture Park?  Leave them below.


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